Few Conservative Party conferences pass without an unscheduled outbreak of frankness from someone who is paid to know better. In the aftermath, the Prime Minister is usually to be found in a broadcasting studio struggling to explain what his subordinate “really meant”.

So it was yesterday morning. In interview after interview, David Cameron wound up embroiled in a textual analysis of what Jeremy Hunt did or did not say about British workers and their Chinese counterparts. You knew things were bad when the Prime Minister resorted to the excuse that his Health Secretary had been “widely misquoted”.

Don’t quote Mr Cameron on that, however: it’s not true. The best you can say about Mr Hunt’s meditations on tax credits, frugality, and the work ethic is that he was misinterpreted. You can believe he was misinterpreted, meanwhile, if you came up the Clyde on a boatload of ripe soft fruit.

Mr Hunt, a minister who seems to treat gaffes as essential adjuncts to promotion, placed the word “Chinese” (a reference to his wife) in one sentence and the phrases “hard work” and “Asian economies” in the sentence after next. Clear enough?

If not, here’s what he actually said: “There’s a pretty difficult question that we have to answer, which is essentially: are we going to be a country which is prepared to work hard in the way that Asian economies are prepared to work hard, in the way that Americans are prepared to work hard?”

We can all agree, I think, that China is still in Asia. We can probably also agree that Mr Hunt ignored the claim that there is more to Britain’s woeful productivity than a lack of application. Last month, the TUC published an analysis showing that the number of people working more than 48 hours in a week has increased by 15 per cent since 2010. But why would stress, burn-out and the rest interest a health minister?

Mr Hunt made two mistakes at a Manchester fringe meeting (if you don’t count opening his mouth). First, he seemed to cast aspersions on British workers just as George Osborne was attempting to rebrand the Tories as “the only true party of labour”. Secondly, Mr Hunt decided to philosophise about the “important cultural signal” the Government is sending with cuts to tax credits just as many Conservatives are becoming jittery about the whole business.

But the minister was honest in his opinions: where’s the crime? He doesn’t think British people work as hard as they could. He also believes that cutting support for the lowest paid is “about creating a pathway to independence, self-respect and dignity”. In Mr Hunt’s book, the plight of anyone trying to raise a family on £16,500 matters less than how that £16,500 is earned. Arrive at the figure with state help, it seems, and you lack “self-respect”.

By one estimate, Mr Hunt has a net worth of £4.5 million. Logically, he has self-respect to burn, even if some of it has derived from clever things he has done with tax and dividends. Mr Cameron thinks he is worth the £134,565 paid to Cabinet ministers. Mr Hunt has better than eight times the self-respect of someone raising a family on £16,500. But money, as they rarely say, can’t buy you cleverness.

Lately, Mr Osborne has been trying to insist that, thanks to his new minimum wage and childcare provisions, a “typical” family will be £2,000 better off despite the shrinking of tax credits. If that’s true, why does Mr Hunt need to defend cuts as morally necessary? If working families are to be better off thanks to the Chancellor, what does the Health Secretary’s sermon have to do with it?

You could equally ask why Tories, Boris Johnson conspicuously, have grown nervous about Mr Osborne’s reforms. London’s mayor would like to dislodge the Chancellor in the queue to succeed Mr Cameron, of course, and has an interest in finding fault. In his own speech in Manchester yesterday, nevertheless, Mr Johnson said the government “must ensure that as we reform welfare and we cut taxes that we protect the hardest working and lowest paid”.

Clearly, the mayor has not heard about those typical families and their £2,000 windfalls. Either that or he has heard it and doesn’t believe it. That would make Mr Johnson a member of a large and growing club. It would leave Mr Hunt as the sole proprietor of fine old Victorian claptrap. And it would leave Mr Osborne with a problem.

As things stand, he will beat Mr Johnson for the leadership if and when Mr Cameron keeps his word and stands aside before the next election. For reasons only Tories understand, the Chancellor has had good reviews within his party, especially since his last Budget. Even before Labour acquired a new leader, Mr Osborne’s “National Living Wage” was regarded as a clever attempt to present the Conservatives as the latest natural party of government.

But what if tax credit reform begins to look like a brutal assault on those low-paid but “striving” families by whom ministers set such store? The garrulous Mr Hunt can muse about their moral welfare all he likes. In 2020, his party, perhaps with Mr Osborne as its leader, will need the votes of those people. Why would they vote for someone whose most memorable act was to take money from their pockets?

Plenty of people who can do sums at least as well as the Chancellor dispute his claims over tax credits. In fact, he is the only one crunching the numbers and managing to come up with a result that seems like good news for underpaid families. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), so often hailed as independent by Mr Osborne, has spelled it out bluntly: on average, the worst off will lose badly thanks to the prospective leader of the one true “workers’ party”.

The IFS reckons that changes to benefits and tax credits will cost the average family with someone in work £750 a year. The Chancellor’s new minimum wage will compensate these victims, says the think tank, to the tune of just £200. Take your average from all working age households, including those not in work, and Mr Osborne’s depredations amount to £1,090. The new wage will offset this by just £150 a year.

The £2,000 figure is a fantasy. No one but the Chancellor believes it – if he does believe it – and the truth will not stay hidden for long. When it becomes plain, no doubt in statistics measuring child poverty, a few more people will understand the reality of Tory attitudes a little better. They think millions of their fellow citizens are feckless and undeserving.

Mr Hunt believes families struggle simply and only because they don’t work hard enough. Mr Osborne either believes that the worst off in our society can stand to suffer a little more, or he doesn’t much care about the consequences of his policies. Astoundingly, both men claim to occupy the political centre ground.